From the time of its 1895 construction, Portland’s First Congregational Church has stood as one of the city’s grandest and most imposing buildings. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the church is a rare example of Venetian Gothic architecture—few others exist in America—and its 175-foot-high bell tower stood as the tallest structure in Portland for 60 years. But after withstanding time and the elements for well over a century, it now bears the scars of attrition.
In April, a two-foot-long piece of one of the tower’s Gothic tracery panels fell to the sidewalk near the church. Last month, an entire 16×24 foot panel was removed as a safety precaution. Church officials say the tower is in need of extensive repairs, and estimate the total cost at $540,000. The project would entail building extensive scaffolding around the tower and renting a crane to allow for cleaning and painting, patching damaged stonework, installing bird-proofing and new lighting, and replacement of four 16×24 foot tracery panels.
After years of declining membership, the church’s congregation stands at 328, meaning each member would have to contribute over $1,500 to meet the project’s cost. To date, members and other supporters have raised over $146,000 (including pledges and in-kind donations, with another $100,000 pledged by the church in the event of a fundraising shortfall), but the church recognizes the need to ask the greater Portland community to contribute to the effort.
The church’s “Restore a Portland Landmark” fundraising campaign asks that Portlanders take ownership of the bell tower, saying it doesn’t simply belong to the church— they say it’s a community asset of great architectural significance, and that the church serves the community through the volunteer efforts of its members and by hosting concerts and lectures. One official said that First Congregational’s effort to engage non-members in its fundraising campaign can be viewed as a test of how Portlanders—reputed to be among the least churchgoing in the country—view their old churches in terms of historic and cultural importance.
Officials hope to begin the restoration project in April of 2015. For more information or to donate to First Congregational Church’s bell tower repair fund visit their website or contact project moderator Ross Runkel at RossRunkel@gmail.com.
Additional reading is available in a recent Portland Tribune article.